With the NBA All-Star game now in the rearview mirror, it's time for basketball's best teams to kick it into second gear for a playoff run. But although the league's annual showcase game may not have featured much effort on the defensive end, the NBA is littered with defensive specialists and enforcers.
From shot blockers to lockdown perimeter defenders to ball thieves, the 10 players on this list take their defense very seriously and are leading candidates for NBA Defensive Player of the Year. Here's a countdown of the top 10 defenders in the NBA this season and why they have a chance at the award.
Wade hasn't always been known as the best defender and will take plays off to preserve his legs on the offensive end. But playing alongside the King has revitalized Wade and made him into one of the top defenders in the league for one of the best defensive teams in the NBA.
He's averaging a career-high 6.9 rpg and chipping in with about a steal and a block per game. Not bad for a shooting guard who stands only 6'4" and has to defend guys like Joe Johnson, Ray Allen and Kobe Bryant on a daily basis.
Chandler returned from a successful summer anchoring the frontcourt for Team USA in the FIBA World Championships, and he has carried over his defensive prowess into the regular season for the Dallas Mavericks.
The 7'1" behemoth is back to being a double-double threat for the first time in three seasons, averaging 10.5 ppg and 9.4 rpg. He's also contributing a block and half a steal per game. The Mavericks have never been a team known for their defense, but this season Dallas is ninth in the NBA in points allowed at 95.6 ppg. Dirk Nowitzki might be the star, but the Mavericks wouldn't be championship contenders without Chandler in the middle.
Paul may only stand six-feet tall, but his quick hands have terrorized NBA ball-handlers all season. The Hornets point guard leads the NBA in steals with 2.5 spg and, despite being undersized, he's relentless on the perimeter. He's also good for about three or four rebounds each game.
Point guard has become the strongest position in the NBA in the last few seasons, and Paul is the best of the best. No surprise then that New Orleans has the fourth-best scoring defense in the NBA, surrendering a shade under 93 ppg.
Paul is on pace to lead the NBA in steals for the third consecutive year in a row. (That is if Rajon Rondo doesn't catch him.)
The ageless Duncan just keeps delivering outstanding season after outstanding season. His numbers are down almost across the board (9.2 rpg, 6.8 drpg, 2.0 bpg and 0.7 spg), but then again so are his minutes (career-low 28.7 mpg).
If we look at his numbers for the time he's on the court, then Duncan is incredibly right in line with his career averages, at the ripe age of 34.
The four-time All-Star Game MVP has also been named to eight NBA All-Defensive First Teams, including each of the last five years. There's not enough cartilage left in Bryant's knees to allow him to play hard defense on each possession. But in the big moment, there's not a better man defender in the entire league.
Bryant's having another stellar season, averaging 5.4 rpg and 1.2 spg. His minutes are down to a shade under 34 a game (38.8 mpg last season), so it's impressive that he's still performing at such a high level. Look for Kobe to turn it up even higher come playoff time.
Smith is one of the most freakishly athletic players in the NBA, and the bulk of that athleticism goes into his defense. Though he's only 6'9", Smith is regularly among the league leaders in blocks. This season he's averaging 1.7 bpg to go on top of a career-high 8.8 rpg and 1.4 spg.
Smith has a reputation for stuffing the stat sheet with weak-side blocks, but this season he's significantly improved his perimeter defense and is a stronger all-around defender. Thanks to Smith, the Hawks have the seventh-best scoring defense in the NBA.
James is probably the most unstoppable offensive force on the planet thanks to his inhuman combination of athleticism, size and speed. But all those qualities make him a terrific defender too.
LeBron is a historically good rebounder and is averaging a gaudy 7.4 rpg despite sharing the court with All-Star's Chris Bosh and Dwayne Wade. He's also equally good defending the perimeter (1.6 spg) as he is defending the paint (0.6 bpg). Oh and the Heat have the sixth-best scoring defense in the NBA, and are first in the league in three big defensive categories: opponent's field-goal percentage (42.6), opponent's three-point percentage (33.0) and blocks (163). James probably has something to do with that.
Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce are both great individual defenders, but Garnett is the heart and soul of the Celtics defense. And at 34 he's playing as well as ever, having arguably his best season in a Boston uniform.
Garnett is averaging 9.1 rpg (first on the team), 1.5 spg (second on the team) and 0.8 bpg (second on the team). He's putting up huge numbers despite sharing the frontcourt with guys like Shaquille O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins and playing in a team defense that masks individual accomplishments.
Garnett's missed too many games and doesn't get enough playing time (31.4 mpg) to be a serious contender for this award. But it's a safe bet that the Celtics wouldn't have the NBA's No. 1 ranked scoring defense (91.2 ppg) without Garnett on the court.
In his sixth NBA season Bogut has raised his defense to another level and is leading the league in blocks at 2.9/game. He's also a monster on the boards, grabbing 8.2 rpg on the defensive end, 11.4 total, and has a handful of steals.
The Bucks, meanwhile, have the third-best scoring defense in the NBA and lead the league in steals. The defensive pressure hasn't translated into wins for Milwaukee and Bogut, and that's the primary reason why he's not likely to win this award. But in a league with so many great shot-blockers, Bogut is undeniably one of the best.
The two-time defending NBA Defensive Player of the Year is on pace to secure his third trophy and seems to be the only constant for an Orlando Magic team still struggling to find its identity.
Howard grabs just a tick under 10 boards a game on the defensive end and 13.8 rpg total, which would lead the league if it weren't for Kevin Love. He's fifth in blocks at 2.1 bpg and is among the leaders in steals among big men with a career-high 1.2 spg. The Magic are again one of the NBA's top defensive teams with the fifth-best scoring defense (93.9 ppg) and the fourth best in opponent's field goal percentage (44.0).
Just imagine how crazy those numbers would be if opposing teams didn't structure their entire offensive game plans to avoid Howard. There's nothing stopping Howard from winning this award another 5-10 times.